As pilgrims descend on Rome to celebrate Easter in the heart of the Catholic Church, security concerns are taking priority. Anti-terror experts have been warning for months the city could now be a target for attacks.
Experts warn the Vatican could be a target for terrorists over Easter.
Italian newspapers have dubbed this year's holiday "armored Easter."
Both the eternal city and the Vatican have mobilized to deal with terrorist attacks. Around 12,000 police officers and 4,000 soldiers are on duty in the Italian capital -- at airports, train stations, subways, government buildings and embassies as well as so-called "soft targets," such as museums, churches and shopping centers. The authorities have identified 8,000 locations that they say could be singled out by terrorists.
Papal Swiss guards in front of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican
The Vatican's security forces, including the 140 gendarmes and 110 Swiss Guards (photo), the elite troop that ensures the Pope's safety, are also on high alert. Rumor has it the CIA advised the Pope to wear a bullet-proof vest for the celebrations, which stretch from Thursday to Monday. But John Paul II, who survived an assassination attempt at the Vatican in 1981, reportedly rejected the idea. In any case, he will be reading his public speeches on St. Peter's Square from a bullet-proof glass tablet.
There haven't actually been any concrete warnings to provoke the massive safety precautions. But the fact that Italy supports the United States in Iraq and currently has the third-largest troop contingent stationed there could make it a target for Islamic extremists. On top of that, Easter Sunday falls on April 11 this year, and many people fear that the date could herald another terrorist attack in the wake of the March 11 bombings in Madrid and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.
Still, a short time ago, investigators reportedly found a dated video from an al Qaeda associate threatening to destroy Rome. "The person who will destroy Rome is already preparing his swords. Rome will not be conquered by words but by force and weapons," Italian newsweekly Panorama quoted the man on the tape, who called himself "Bin Laden's ambassador in Europe."
Of course the situation is more dangerous during Easter, Enzo Bianco, head of the Italian parliament's secret service committee, told AFP news agency. "One must be particularly alert, but not lapse into hysteria," the former interior minister said. "No information indicates that an attack will be carried in Italy over Easter."
Italian troops secure an area after a suicide bomber drove a tanker truck into their headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Nov. 12, 2003.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and Defense Minister Antonio Martino told parliament the government wouldn't let the threat of terrorists dictate Italy's policy in Iraq. Premier Silvio Berlusconi stressed that Italy wasn't about to consider pulling its 3,000 troops out of Iraq "just now."